2014 Fall TV reviews, part 2

Welcome to the 2014 Matinee Culture fall pilot watch. As usual, this fall Ryan will be watching (almost) all of the scripted network TV pilots and bringing you some brief reviews, hopefully cutting down on the time you might otherwise waste checking out “Selfie.” Shows will be rated on a scale of “Watch it,” “Try it,” “Skip it” or “Avoid it.” Let’s dive in!

This time, we’ll be talking about three shows that came out this week: “Gotham,” “Scorpion” and “How To Get Away With Murder.” If you’re looking for a show that came out this week not covered here, it was covered in part one of the pilot watch — or it’s “Madame Secretary,” which is reviewed in part three.



Fox, drama, Mondays at 8

One-sentence summary: What do you get when you make a Batman TV show without Batman?

I’ll get this out of the way up top: I love Batman, and as such I’m willing to give this show a little more of a chance to find itself. That being said, this is a television show made about a rich and entertaining mythology that removes the most interesting part of the mythology. It is also clearly pulling much of its inspiration and characterization from “Gotham Central,” perhaps my favorite comic of all time, while missing that comic’s point: setting the action around the police in Gotham is interesting because they are dealing with and reacting to Batman’s world, not the real one.

In case you have missed the promos for this show, it’s set in Batman’s city before there is a Batman – Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in the first episode, and the high-profile case becomes one of the first that new police detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) must solve as he deals with a crime-ridden city and a corrupt police department. If you’re wondering how this is much different from any other cop show without superheroes, well, me too.

The show is somewhat saved by the fact that it appears to be a meditation on the power of one man standing against corruption and greed rather than just a police procedural in which a man we know will become the Riddler works in the evidence room. However, my number of nitpicky comics-based complaints are overshadowed by the often-hacky writing and melodramatic performances from many of the peripheral characters (though McKenzie is quite good). There may be a good show in there, but they would have been better off just adapting “Gotham Central” outright.

Ryan’s rating: I would “Skip it” if I wasn’t such a fan of these characters in their comic book contexts. If you also like Batman, I’d give it a marginal “Try it.”



CBS, drama, Mondays at 9

One-sentence summary: What if “The Big Bang Theory” was an hour-long thriller and the four nerds worked for the government?

I apologize for two one-sentence summaries in a row that are pretty clichéd descriptions of what these shows are, but sometimes the critical distillation is correct. This is a show about four nerdy geniuses (the lead one of which appears to be on the spectrum), and sometimes there are misunderstandings or awkward social situations because none of them know how to interact with others, and also there’s a waitress who is their main link to the outside world. This could be a description for both “Scorpion” and the long-running CBS comedy that is now airing right before it, and “Scorpion’s” pilot mainly differentiates itself by being longer and having an action sequence in which a woman riding in a convertible has to connect a computer to an ethernet cable being dangled out of a low-flying airplane.

In short, this pilot is kind of dumb; it’s not written very well and the actors haven’t had time to flesh out their roles in the way that “Big Bang’s” protagonists have. That said, the show’s writing staff seems to have committed so fully to the idea of “smart = magic” that the stupidity is sometimes a little bit fun. The aforementioned plane scene is entirely unnecessary even within the parameters set up by the pilot’s plot (for those who view the episode, why don’t they just land the plane, which is in view of an empty runway, and then plug in the computer?), but there’s a sense that pilot director Justin Lin just wanted to see stuff look real slick. There are worse things for a pilot to do.

That said, any attempt to add interpersonal drama or real jokes to the proceedings fails entirely, and I can’t imagine that this team of hackers solving cybercrime is going to remain fun for long.

Ryan’s rating: Skip it unless you want even more “Big Bang Theory” than what CBS is currently shelling out.


How To Get Away With Murder

ABC, drama, Thursdays at 10

One-sentence summary: As a group of law students learn how to win cases from an “expert” defense attorney, some of them become accomplices to murder.

“How To Get Away With Murder” was created by Peter Nowalk, but ABC is counting on the executive producer credit to win viewers. The show’s EP is Shonda Rhimes, queen of network schlock, and “HTGAWM” has a plum time slot behind the Rhimes-created “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”

If you’re in the bag for those shows, you’ll probably also like “HTGAWM,” which stars Viola Davis as the aforementioned attorney and Alfred Enoch as Wes, her only pleasant law student. I have never watched “Grey’s,” but “HTGAWM” shares many traits with “Scandal”; perhaps the two most prominent are that every twist has to be as melodramatic and contrived as possible and that most of the cast is entirely unpleasant. I have no problem with flawed or even evil protagonists, but “Breaking Bad” or “The Americans” asks you to empathize with their leads, not support them. “Scandal” actively encourages you to root for a central relationship that is adulterous and has lead to murder, election fraud and a variety of other major crimes. “HTGAWM” first hits you with a barrage of pointlessly mean characters (save for Wes, the pilot’s lone bright spot) and then expects you to be awed when Davis exonerates a woman she knows to be guilty of poisoning her boss.

If you like that sort of thing, I suppose that’s fine, but the most distracting thing about the show is that Davis’s Annalise Keating isn’t a very good lawyer, even though the show purports her to be the best there is. By herself, she appears hopelessly outgunned by the prosecutors, who have a mountain of good circumstantial evidence and a tape of the defendant purchasing the pills she used to drug her boss (a tape Keating didn’t even know about, thanks to poor vetting by her staff). She is only saved because one of her students uses sex to illegally procure an incriminating email and because she forces a man she’s secretly sleeping with to lie on the stand. Like “Scandal,” this show is really dumb, but “HTGAWM” tries way too hard to make you think it’s smart.

Ryan’s rating: Avoid it.

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